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Feasting on the Layer Cake of Krakow, Poland
I was born in Poland and visit the country regularly. These travel notes contain some information about different ways of seeing Krakow that is not available in English-language guidebooks.
More than a millennium old, Krakow is like a four-layer cake in which each layer of history and tradition piles on another with surprisingly good results. And as with the cake, the best way to taste it, or feast on it, is to cut a slice through all the layers in a way that lets you enjoy the best parts of it and get the taste, or impression, of the whole thing.
Trip Planning Basics
Travel to Krakow because it is an ancient city designated by UNESCO as one of the dozen most remarkable old architectural complexes in the world. It has the second oldest university in Central Europe, a royal castle right in the city center, and more than 60 Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque churches. It also boasts rich cultural life and, until recently, had claimed as its current or former residents the late Pope John Paul II and two Literary Nobel laureates - Wislawa Szymborska and late Czeslaw Milosz. Many trendy subterranean cafes, bars and nightclubs complete the picture.
For How Long?
While Krakow has a lot to show, it is not such an art treasure powerhouse as, say, Florence. So in one week you can combine visit here with a trip to another worthy Central European destination such as Prague, Vienna or Budapest. That is unless you believe in slow travel and want to get a glimpse of Poland's nature and its folk life in nearby mountains and nature preserves. Jura Krakowsko-Czestochowska, the highlands with rock formations dating back to the Jurassic period, the majestic Tatra Mountains, the expansive Beskidy Mountains, and the bucolic Pieniny Mountains are all not very far from Krakow.
How to Get There?
No US airline flies directly to Krakow; American and Delta connect via different European capitals, usually in combination with the Polish Airlines LOT. Lufthansa connects via Munich and Alitalia via Milan with no other airlines involved. You also can fly to London, Manchester, Milan, Rome, Stuttgart, Cologne, Paris, Amsterdam, or Barcelona and switch to one of inexpensive European carriers flying to Krakow (they include SkyEurope, Centralwings and Germanwings, all operating from smaller airports.) Yet another option is to fly to Warsaw and take a fast train (a bit over 2.5 hours) to Krakow.
Note: Krakow's train station, which remembers times of Austro-Hungarian emperors, looks smallish and rather provincial. The new one is being constructed just next to it, making a mess for passengers. But the new modern bus terminal is already opening.
Greetings in Polish
Hi - czesc - pronounced tschesch
In most situations we would use "dzien dobry" as hello.
First Layer - Medieval Krakow
Krakow was the capital of Poland and royal seat of Polish kings for six centuries since the country accepted officially the Christian faith in 966. At the peak of its power in the 16th century, Poland was a major player in trade between Orient and Europe and the Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. The Polish kings ruled over the Europe's most populous kingdom that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
You can see remnants of country's past glories and symbols of its many triumphs at the Wawel Royal Complex and the Czartoryski Museum. The latter at Sw. Jana 19 also has the best collection of foreign art that includes major works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and other old masters.
But the best place to begin your visit is Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square), one of the largest piazzas in Europe, surrounded by more than three dozen town houses and palazzi, some designed by Italian architects. (For a more triumphant entrance go through Brama Florianska - Florianska Gate - and continue on Florianska Street.) This is the focal point of city life and the departure point for the most sightseeing tours. The atmosphere is relaxed so you can linger here people-watching from sidewalk cafes and restaurants or walk around the square gazing at all architectural beauties, which seen from afar often are overshadowed by too many too big restaurant/cafe umbrellas.
Kosciol Mariacki (the Church of the Virgin Mary) is anchored in the southeast corner of the square and the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) occupies its center.
Inside the church, shortly before noon, the doors open to one of the largest and most beautiful Gothic altars in Europe, the 15th century work of the Nuremberg artist Veit Stoss known in Poland as Wit Stwosz. And every hour on the hour, a bugler standing in one of the church's windows, high in one of its two spires, plays an ancient, mournful tune (hejnal), which ends abruptly mid-bar. A legend, which you are certain to learn from the guidebook or locals, explains the origin of the mysterious ritual.
Other interesting old churches include:
The arcaded Cloth Hall houses a cluster of cafes and small shops on the ground floor and the galleries of Polish paintings on the second floor. You can buy crafts, amber jewelry, leather slippers and curiosities such as laced lingerie from well-known lace makers in Koniakow in Tatra Mountains.
Another must within the city walls is the Jagiellonian University, founded in the 14th century by the Polish King Casimirus the Great, that claims Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtylla, future Pope John Paul II, among its many famous graduates. At Jagiellonska 15 you can see the 1492 Collegium Maius, the oldest of university buildings clustered along Jagiellonska and Sw. Anny. It houses an interesting university museum whose collection includes Copernicus scientific instruments and the first globe ever to indicate the American continent. Even if you don't have time to see the museum, just enter an arcaded courtyard in its center to get a sense of how the university looked like five centuries ago. The library, communal dining hall, treasury and auditorium also are worth visiting.
For a glance of modern after-school student life check shops, clothing boutiques, art galleries, cafes and restaurants in passageways and courtyards around Florianska Street and Grodzka Street.
The royal complex arising from the Wawel Hill makes a jumble of towers, cupolas and bastions. That's because in a relatively limited space it's packed with the most glorious monuments and treasures of the Polish history. One of the main attractions is the Renaissance Wawel Castle, one of Europe's most magnificent royal residences. Highlights include the Audience Hall with a coffered wooden ceiling adorned with 30 sculpted heads and the unique collection of more than 140 Flemish tapestries. The adjacent Gothic Cathedral was the site of coronations and royal funerals. Trophies from major military victories and tombs and sarcophagi of most Polish kings and some other prominent Poles can be found inside. In addition to its historic riches, the Wawel Hill offers attractive views over the Vistula River and the Old Town (See the Wawel website, in Resources below,for the hours of operation because they are different for different days and objects.)
Pod Aniolami, Grodzka 35
Villa Decius, 28 Lipca 17A (on the outskirts of the city)
Wierzynek, Rynek Glowny 15
Chlopskie Jadlo (Peasant Food), two locations: św. Agnieszki 1 and św. Jana 3
Other Food Places
You can survive on vegetables and fruits particularly if you go to Poland late spring, summer or early fall when they are in season. Most pierogies and crepes are meatless, and they are popular. In the big cities, you will find restaurants with salad bars and rather basic, vegetarian restaurants. In the smaller villages and countryside, it will be more difficult. If you eat fish, trout is available almost everywhere and in better restaurants there is usually some choice of fish dishes.
Beer is the king in Poland and selection is pretty good with emphasis on domestic brews (Zywiec, which has the longest tradition, has survived unscathed the years of communist misery). Poles are so thirsty for it that they drink it even at cafes. The selection of wines on the other hand is more limited and if you order by glass you will get what looks like an almost empty glass. They are not trying to cheat you though. This is exactly measured 100 milliliters, which is considered a "glass" here.
Visit Tyniec where the Benedictine Abbey dating back to the 11th century stands on the picturesque bluff overlooking the Vistula River. Some masses include Gregorian chants and in the summer the Abbey offers a series of magnificent organ concerts. The most pleasurable way to reach Tyniec is by boat. Take one of the riverboats from the Czerwienski Embankment at the foot of the Wawel Hill. The embankment also is a departure point for river cruises.
Second Layer - Art Nouveau Krakow
After the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw, Poland began to decline, and Krakow with it. The hard landing came in the 18th century and then the 19th century when Poland was partitioned by the three neighboring powers: Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Krakow became part of the latter. When the city became the capital of the Galicia province it regained some of its former splendor and became the main hub of Polish intellectual and art life, which was devoted mostly to ideas and dreams about independence. Many prominent writers, poets, composers and painters resided in Krakow or its surroundings at that time.
A good place to get acquainted with their and their friends' art is the National Museum galleries on the first floor of the Cloth Hall. (They are closed for renovation until 2007.) The Polish paintings of that era are not as recognized as their French, German or English counterparts, but if you appreciate Art Nouveau, academic art and East European symbolism you will find treasures here, including huge powerful canvas by Jan Matejko depicting essential moments of the Polish history and highly symbolic and dreamy scenes by Jacek Malczewski.
Stanislaw Wyspianski is the most representative artist of the Polish Art Nouveau. His many and varied works can be viewed at the Wyspianski Museum at Szczepanska 11, dedicated to his art. The interior of Dom Towarzystwa Lekarskiego (House of the Medical Doctors Society) designed entirely by the artist is a real feat. And the St. Francis of Assisi's Church at Wszystkich Swietych Square has his intricate flowery frescoes and stained glass windows.
Other highlights of Art Nouveau include the meeting hall of the former Chamber of Industry and Commerce (now the Literary Publishing House) at Dluga 1 designed by Jozef Mehoffer, Palac Sztuki (Palace of Art) at Plac Szczepański 4 and Muzeum Teatralne (Theater Museum) at Szpitalna 21 with a good collection of costumes and sets designed by Wyspianski, Mehoffer and other prominent artists.
Other points of interest: Palac Wielopolskich (Wielopolski's Palace) at Pl. Wszystkich Świętych that serves as the city hall, the modernist Jesuit basilica of Christ's Sacred Heart at Kopernika 26, and apartment buildings at Retoryka Street (House "Under Singing Frog" and House "Under Donkey's Head") and at Karmelicka Street (House "Under Spider").
Nostalgia, Karmelicka 10
Monarchia, Jozefa 6
Jarema, Plac Matejki 5
Intellectual ferment and new artistic ideas brewed in cafes, which became fashionable in Krakow at the turn of 20th century. Two cafes popular among artists and intellectuals of that era survived until these days.
Jama Michalikowa, Florianska 45
Kawiarnia Noworolskiego, Rynek Glowny 1/3, located inside the Cloth
Other, more modern cafes worth a visit are:
Pozegnanie z Afryka (Farewell to Africa) coffee shop, Sw. Tomasza
For teetotalers best options are teahouses:
Wawel, Rynek Glowny 33
Kopernik, Grodzka 14
Rydlowka Manor at Tetmajera 28. A wedding of poet Lucjan Rydel with a peasant daughter took place in this manor. The event inspired Rydel's pen pal Wyspianski to write "The Wedding", a defining Polish independence drama. The manor now houses the museum of Mloda Polska. You need to get a cab to get there because it is located on the outskirts of Krakow proper.
Third Layer - Jewish Krakow
Standing in the middle of the unusually quiet Kazimierz district is an eerie experience if you know that 500 years ago this was one of the main cultural and intellectual centers of Jewish Diaspora in Europe. With few passersby and almost no traffic, it is hard to imagine that less than 70 years ago this place was all hustle and bustle. The Center for Jewish Culture at Meiselsa Street and Galicja Jewish Museum at Dajwor Street 18 can help in this respect with exhibitions on the former inhabitants of Kazimierz.
Until about 15 years ago synagogues, tenement buildings and other objects completely neglected since the end of WWII were in different stages of disrepair. Since then, with money from mostly American Jews and help of local enthusiasts of the Polish-Jewish tradition, Kazimierz has been spruced up. Shooting Spielberg's "Schindler's List" here also contributed to the revival. The well marked trail, which guides you through mostly narrow cobblestone streets, leads from the Temple synagogue to eight other synagogues including Remuh, the only one that can be visited, and further to the adjacent Jewish cemetery dating back to the 16th century.
Restaurants serving Polish-Jewish food, hotels and cafes, many offering regular concerts of klezmer music, also sprung up in the area. Small antique stores, junk shops and craftsmen workshops also can be found. (On weekends, flea/antique market takes place in the central square.) Out-of-the-way character of Kazimierz also draws young non-Jewish Krakowians tired of "touristy" Rynek Glowny and its vicinity. Quite a few cafes, clubs, and galleries cater to the in-crowd.
Obviously, all the good will and enthusiasm of the promoters of the Kazimierz revival cannot make up for what had been lost. But the area comes to some semblance of busy life during the Festival of the Jewish Culture in the first week of July. In addition to scholarly symposia, lectures and exhibitions, the festival features vocal, musical, dance and theater performances by Jewish groups from around the world.
Although many Krakow's Jews were killed at the Plaszow concentration camp on the other side of the Vistula River, Auschwitz-Birkenau is the place to go for obvious reasons. From Krakow's train/bus station take a train or a bus to Oswiecim and a bus or cab to the former concentration camp. Free shuttle links Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Many restaurants including Alef, Ariel, Arka Noego, Na Kazimierzu, and the well-regarded Klezmer Hois, all located at Szeroka Street, serve Polish-Jewish fare. Stuffed goose necks, chicken soup with kreplah, choulent, carp Jewish style and chicken knedlah in dill sauce are among dishes on the menu.
Fourth Layer - Krakow of Iron
Communists could not leave any significant mark on Krakow because its compact historic center did not leave any place for new socialistic monuments or "progressive" architecture (and they did not want to destroy historic buildings either). So they built huge steelworks not very far from the city center and named it after Lenin. Thousands of poor peasants were brought directly from the country and turned into workers and an entire new city - Nowa Huta - was constructed on Krakow's outskirts to impose the proletarian culture on the city and mitigate its bourgeoisie tendencies (a part of Andrzej Wajda's movie "Man of Iron" takes place during Nowa Huta's construction).
Communists have never succeeded in changing Krakowians but pollution from the steel mills and other factories that encircled Krakow had been damaging precious historical buildings and monuments for four decades. After the fall of communism in 1989, local initiatives supported by Western funding and expertise, coupled with the shutdown of some polluters, have dramatically reduced pollution.
If you have never visited a Central or East European city during the communist era you should visit Nowa Huta just to glance at a vision of a brave new world shaped in concrete and steel by communist bureaucrats, architects and artists. Lenin's steelworks, now known as Mittal Steel Poland since they have been bought by the Indian steel concern, is headquartered in the office building considered a masterpiece of social realism, or the art dogma of Stalinist era.
For me it is rather desperate but curious attempt to make otherwise simple and functional office buildings relate somehow to Krakow's ancient objects. Twin structures with four towers frame the main entrance to the steelworks. Some of their elements allude to Italian Renaissance and Baroque palaces, and hence the buildings were ironically called "Vatican" or "Doge's Palaces" by local residents.
The most representative residential areas of the early 1950s are Osiedle Szkolne and Osiedle Stalowe. They are connected to the steelworks by a wide boulevard.
Other somewhat interesting parts of Nowa Huta include:
The modernist church Arka Pana (the Lord's Ark) built in the early 1970s was a stake driven through the heart of the communist vampire. Although it has not changed the overall character of the gray, concrete and monumental proletarian urban complex it became the focal point for the religious and democratic opposition in the early 1980s.
If you want to get a sense of what it was like to live in Nowa Huta during communist times have a meal at Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar). Milk bars were cheap eateries specializing in basic staples - buckwheat with milk, cabbage stew, crepes and potato dumplings - that were served without any garnish or other pretenses. They were often filled with a smell of cooked cabbage. Some of them, both in Nowa Huta and Krakow, survived and cater to the poorest segment of the population. Although they continue to stick to the basic fare, they are a bit more appealing now and food is, if only slightly, better.
In Krakow check out:
Icing on the Layer Cake - Arts and the Nightlife
Having a long and prominent theatrical tradition, Krakow prides itself on particularly good and innovative theater. Teatr Stary (Old Theater), considered one of the best, if not the best, in Poland, is the cultural institution. Because it invites the most imaginative Polish directors to produce plays on its stage, performances are often visually stunning so you can admire them without understating a word of Polish. Look for anything directed by Krystian Lupa, Jan Klata, Jerzy Jarocki or Andrzej Wajda.
The other major repertory theater is Teatr im. Slowackiego, which shares the stage with Krakow's Opera. The philharmonic orchestra at another location claims maverick British violinist Nigel Kennedy as its visiting artistic director.
Smaller venues of "off-Broadway" type, including Bagatela, Scena STU, Mumerus, and KTO, sometimes present small-scale musicals, vocal recitals, evenings of poetry sung to the original music and/or cabaret performances. You can link to individual theater websites from www.teatry.art.pl/regiony/miasta.htm.
A number of opera, theater, ballet, and music festivals are taking place in Krakow throughout the year. They include Opera Festival "Opera Viva", Ballet Spring Festival, Festival of Ancient Music, Music Festival Sacrum-Profanum, jazz festivals, Garden Theater Festival and many more. For calendar of upcoming events see www.krakow.pl or www.karnet.krakow.pl.
Paintings and other art works by the most recognized Polish contemporary artists are exhibited and sold by Galeria Starmach (Starmach Gallery) at Wegierska 5. The gallery represents among others Jerzy Nowosielski, one of the most prominent living artists in the world hardly recognized beyond Polish borders.
The cutting-edge modern art including works by young Krakowian artists is displayed at Bunkier Sztuki at Plac Szczepanski (Szczepanski Square) 3a.
As to the nightlife, my friend who used to live in France claims that Krakow has more exciting nightlife than Paris and more watering holes than any other place in Europe. I cannot verify this claim because I am not much of a barfly.
But whatever the truth, I am sure you can find something that suites your particular interest and taste. Here are few options:
www.krakow.pl: Magiczny Krakow, general tourist information including recommended tours, events calendar
www.cracow-life.com: Cracow Life, travel guide to Cracow, hotels, restaurants, cafes, clubs, specialty shops and boutiques
krakow4u.pl: Krakow 4 U, tourist information and attractions.
krakow4u.pl/eng_index.php?parametr=eng_kosc_glw: Krakow 4 U, pictures of the most interesting churches
www.teatry.art.pl/regiony/miasta.htm: List of theaters in Krakow.
www.karnet.krakow.pl: KARNET. Krakow City Guide to Art and Entertainment.
My Krakow Top Ten Things to Do: by Carey Fruzza
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